Henry Andrade is a world-class hurdler and would-be Olympian who doesn't have a coach, sponsors or a training team. But he has something few athletes have: an entire country waiting to cheer him on.
For the first time, Cape Verde, a tiny West African archipelago, will be represented in the Olympic games: Andrade, a dual citizen born to Cape Verdean parents, will bear the flag in Atlanta, and run the 110-meter high hurdles. At 33, it is almost certain to be his last chance.
Having missed qualifying for the 1992 U.S. Olympic team by a quarter of a second, Andrade could qualify as a U.S. runner in the June Olympic trials.
But this time, even if he makes it as an American, he will run for Cape Verde, he said.
"This is an opportunity to represent me, my family, my people and my country," said Andrade, a talkative, smiling Norwalk resident who trains in clothes bearing the name of his homeland. "Cape Verde is so small and so poor. The place needs a lot of giving."
Cape Verde is a cluster of 10 small islands 300 miles off the west coast of Africa with 400,000 citizens. Like the Andrade family, many Cape Verdeans leave the impoverished islands, best known as a Portuguese slave port, in search of opportunity.
The family left their homeland a few months before Andrade was born, but their ties to their homeland remain strong; all the Andrade children were brought up speaking Crioula, the national language. But travel costs made visits home almost impossible.
Andrade can't spare the money to visit Cape Verde, and his homeland can't spare the money to sponsor him. But newspapers and radio stations there carry many stories about his quest.
Andrade's fight to win an Olympic medal is a lonely one. He rises as early as 4:30 a.m. to sprint and lift weights. Then he's off to his job as an insurance claims adjuster. He trains again at lunchtime, and often trains again in the evening.
Three nights a week, he attends night classes at Cal State Long Beach, where he is finishing a master's degree in kinesiology. His late nights are filled with studying and other course work.
With no sponsors or team affiliation, Andrade must pay for his own equipment, supplies and what little coaching he can afford.
"I don't see how he does it," said his older brother, Victor Andrade, who with the rest of the Andrade family live in Sacramento. "It's an incredible amount of work. It's crazy."
"I've been a monk for some time now," Andrade says, half-jokingly. "I hate it with a passion, not having free time. But I've been blessed with a lot of athletic ability and I owe it to myself to do this. There is a lot of hunger inside me to win."
Andrade's friend and occasional coach, Frank Little, sees Andrade's unbending competitive spirit firsthand.
"Seven in 10 gifted athletes are lazy," said Little, a sports psychologist who has coached several Olympic runners to victory. "They think they can get by with the minimum workout because they're naturally good. Not Henry. If anything, he pushes himself too hard. I need to hold him back from overworking himself."
It was by chance that Andrade came to run for Cape Verde.
In the late 1980s, he decided to get Cape Verdean citizenship out of a desire to claim his heritage. He had been the only member of his family who lacked citizenship because he was born in America.
Under Cape Verde law, those born in the country may pass on citizenship rights to their children and grandchildren.
While awaiting final approval for his new passport, Andrade, a track star since grade school, talked with a friend about the Olympics.
Why, his friend asked, couldn't he run for Cape Verde when the passport came through?
A few months later, he bumped into another friend, the president of the local Cape Verdean cultural organization, and mentioned the idea. She begged him to at least look into it.
All countries, no matter how small, are eligible to enter athletes in the Olympic games, according to the International Olympic Committee.
At Andrade's request, Cape Verde accepted on his behalf the Olympic invitation it had always received but never answered. His entry in the event was secured.
As a youngster growing up in Sacramento, Andrade won a series of track triumphs. He set state records in the hurdles and won national competitions throughout high school and at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
But in the late 1980s, he began to suffer a string of severe hamstring pulls, so bad that by the end of college he could not finish a race. Last year, doctors discovered what may have caused the muscle pulls. Surgery performed last August appears to have corrected the problem.
On a clear, blustery day recently, Andrade squeezed in a lunchtime practice at Cerritos College. He completed drills, gliding over the 42-inch high hurdles, his eyes locked straight ahead in concentration.
He is usually alone on the track. If he could, he would stay there all day, running, coaching--anything, he says. He hopes to start an athletic program for future Cape Verdean Olympians.
"I'm an athlete first, I have always been and always will be," Andrade said. "That's me. That's what I do best."